Postdrunkenness

The second chapter of Leithart’s Against Christianity is “Against Theology.” There are three aspects of this chapter that I would like to comment on.

The first is the troublesome matter of timeless truths. When many conservative Christians hear any kind of critique of timeless truths, the automatic assumption is that some form of relativism is launching an attack on the eternal verities, showing relativism’s constant hostility to the permanent things. And, if we are talking about the kind of balloon juice that emergent writers like Brian McLaren put out, that suspicion is quite justified.

But there is another kind of critique of “timeless truth,” which objects to this concept, not because the timeless truth collides with relativism, but rather because theologians have the timeless truth locked up in a museum case in Plato’s heaven, and the timeless truth therefore collides with nothing. This is the sense in which Leithart critiques timeless truth.

“With regard to content, theology frequently aims to deal not with the specifics of historical events, but with ‘timeless truths’ of doctrine.

But he is no relativist. Is there a sense which truth is timeless? Of course (p. 44). We are not relativists. “God is eternally a Trinity, eternally righteous and holy and just and true.” But we know about this because the Second Person of the Trinity invaded time and made himself known to us here (p. 45), smack in the middle of history.

Truth is to be obeyed here, and is not to be uprooted as some deracinated plant, withering up on somebody’s spiritualized weed pile. One man objects to “timeless truth” because he is trying to get away from the Mosiac condemnation of anal intercourse, and he wants the law of God to be a little more friendly to his anatomically confused yearnings. But another man objects to “timeless truth” because he wants the confession that Jesus is Lord to be made in time and history, and he wants that confession made by the president, Congress, and Supreme Court justices, along with all the people, and the sooner the better. The reason for this is that “timeless truth” that gets lifted clean out of history is just as relativized as the gumby truth of the liberals. This objection to timeless truth is actually an objection to dehydrated truth, and is not an objection to the recognition that Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever. But yesterday and today are different, and so the constant word of God has to confront the current idolatries (that are in flux) in timely ways.

This leads to the second point. The story that the Church tells is an all-encompassing story. It is not just one more story among many. It takes second place to no other story. It is the story within which all other stories must make their sense. If they refuse, and insist on telling their own story on their own terms, they soon deteriorate into chaos. Those who therefore think that Leithart is doing the same kind of thing as our current crop of angst-ridden pomo-enablers are simply tone deaf. More about this in a minute, but proof first and application second.

“Contextualization be damned. The Church’s mission is not to accomodate her language to the existing language, to disguise herself so as to slip in unnoticed and blend in with the existing cultures. Her mission is to confront the language of the existing culture with a language of her own” (p. 52).

“Christianity [remember, what Leithart is against] insists that biblical language is a special language for Sunday, church, and private devotions, not a language that names the universe and what is beyond the universe, not a language for the market and the town hall” (p. 55).

“Contextualization be damned. We have our own story, and if it clashes with the stories we find around us, so much the worse for the other stories. Our story, after all, is big enough to encompass every other” (p. 59).

“The dominant story of America and the modern West is the liberal democratic narrative” (p. 61).

“This is a product of the heresy of Christianity. It is a product of theology. We adopt the culture’s story because we forget that we have an all-embracing story of our own” (p. 63).

Leithart is obviously not against “totalizing.” He is against any idols trying to totalize, because they do it badly or wickedly, or both. But preachers and prophets are called to do nothing but totalize. Jesus is Lord of heaven and earth. He is not Lord of heaven and earth in my head, or in my heart, or in my faith community. He is not Lord behind our eyes, or between our ears. He actually is Lord of heaven and earth. This means that He has sent His prophets and preachers out into the world to declare the fact of His universal dominion. He did not send us out to dither about confusedly, or to shuffle our feet in embarrassment because we are not as sentimentally-correct as the Dali Lama, or to open up a constructive inter-faith-conversation about how we do things in our church/synagogue/mosque.

So Leithart’s abandonment of deracinated theology means that he is insistent that the Church function as a public faith, right out in public, and he also asserts that we have clearly compromised with modernity (and its ugly step-child, Christianity) if we adopt anything less than a “take no prisoners” approach. Theology is to be rejected because it provides us with a multitude of excuses for our continued disobedience. The problem with theology is that “one of its chief effects is to keep Christians and the Church in their proper marginal place” (p. 43). And many Christians like being left alone in their marginal place. The problem with theology is that it allows itself to be relegated to a specific (marginalized) spot in the social curriculum. “Theology keeps Christian teaching at the margins and ensures that other voices, other languages, other words shape the world of temporalities. Politics is left to politicians, economics to economists, sociology to sociologists, history to historians, and philosophy to madmen” (p. 45). Leithart is clear — the entire world is to be shaped by biblical and Christian language.

For some reason, one I have not quite figured out, there are many soft Christians out there (drifting steadily deeper into the modern confusion called postmodernism) who just love linking to Leithart’s blog. Nothing wrong with that — lots more people should do it. But people who obviously have no idea about what he is actually up to should read a little more carefully.

Leithart is arguing that theology is the friend of a secular marketplace of ideas, of a liberal democratic public square. The prophet will have none of it, and a faithful preacher calls all the sons of men to repentance and faith. But theology has worked out a whole series of compromises and truces for us, and theologians get upset when someone within the Church, on behalf of the Church, and in the name of Jesus Christ, declares war. That threatens the truce for everybody. They do say that it is all right for us to vocalize support for “our values,” but we must not do so because Jesus is the Lord of everything.

“Christian political writers claim that when Christians enter the public arena they must theologically neutral language like ‘natural law’ and ‘human rights’ and never, ever utter the name or office of ‘King Jesus’” (p. 54).

This is why opposition to what Leithart calls Constantinianism, and what I have (cheekily) called theonomic postmillenialism is always done in the name of modernity, for the sake of modernity, by men so much in the grip of modernity that they cannot conceive of any other way of living. This includes all the postmodernists, ha! The postmodernists, falsely so-called, think they are going west because they have walked a few feet west down the center aisle of an airplane flying east. The postmodernists are like a man at a bar, sloshed to perfection, ordering another scotch on the rocks in the name of post-drunkenness.

Theologians fight to keep theology out of certain human endeavors — that’s what makes them theologians. “Practical theology ensures that the secular remains secular” (p. 45). The thing that makes this possible is a truncated hermeneutic. Leithart rightly sees that it was typology that enabled Christians to apply all the Bible to all of life, and that the modernist retreat to a truncated grammatical/historical hermeneutic was a trick designed to lure exegetes on to a homiletical reservation.

“Opposition to typology not only fuels Christianity but, because of that, assists in the establishment of secular modernity” (p. 57).

But Leithart objects to a “privatizing and spiritualizing hermeneutics” that helps keep the public square naked (p. 57). He says further that “it is of the essence of the Church to occupy public terrain and to occupy it as a public community” (p. 58). Note that well. It is of the essence of the Church to occupy public terrain. This has political ramifications, of necessity, by the very structure of things. In answer to the charge that this is a move by the Religious Right, our reply would have to be, “No, it is much more radical than that.” The Religious Right is too domesticated, too tame, too willing to play by the rules laid down by our secular handlers.

Speaking of the collision between Rome and the early Church, Leithart says this: “Christians challenged every claim advanced by the imperial eschatology” (p. 60). The empire today is a different one, but it too has an imperial eschatology, one that must be challenged by the Church, as the Church, in the name of Jesus Christ.

“To exult in a crucified Messiah had radical political implications. Every time Paul said that he criminal on the Roman cross was Lord and Christ, he was implying that the empire was in the grip of some enormity of wickedness and folly” (p. 61).

But we have not done what our brothers and sisters in the early Church did.

“American democracy has followed the second path, turning the gospel into a support for the global spread of democracy and reducing the Church to a timid and tolerant participant in ‘democratic process’” (p. 63).

But when we wake up to what we have allowed to happen, we too often resort to “activism” of the wrong sort. We awake from quietist slumbers and become lobbyists for the Religious Right. The problem with this is not necessarily the content of what we are seeking to implement, but rather the way we are going about it. Abortion should be against the law. Fine. And Herod did not have a right to keep his brother’s wife. But John the Baptist did not try to slip a note to Herod during a photo op that John the B’s marketing agent set up for him. How do we challenge the regnant idolatries? Through worship, informed by evangelical and biblical faith, the kind of faith that overcomes the world.

“Every worship service is a challenge to Caesar, because every Lord’s Day we bow to a Man on the throne of heaven, to whom even great Caesar must bow” (p. 67).

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A Fourth Decade of Psalms/Psalm 36

Introduction:

This is a psalm that clearly contrasts the wicked with the righteous, but it is not a psalm of imprecation. An imprecatory prayer is when we ask God to deal with the wicked in a particular way. This is an “oracle” about the nature of transgression and righteousness; it is teaching, not a request.

The Text:

The transgression of the wicked saith within my heart, that there is no fear of God before their eyes . . .

(Ps. 36:1-12).

 

Overview:

Psalm 36 divides readily into three sections. The first section is a description of the nature of the wicked, as well as an outline of his downward spiral (vv. 1-4). The second section describes four attributes of God, in glorious language, and then moves on to describe the blessings of the righteous, those who live in fellowship with this God (vv. 5-9). And the third section (vv. 10-12) is a prayer for protection, along with a prediction that the wicked will fall.

Functional Atheism:

All the problems tha the wicked have proceed from the first problem, the root problem. They have no fear of God before his eyes (v. 1). He may say he believes in God, but he is a functional atheist. How does he get into this deplorable condition? The reason is given here, in the word for. Why does he not fear God? In the first place, he flatters himself, and he does this to the extent that he is unable to see his own iniquity (v. 2). It is too hateful for him to consider, not so hateful that he repents of it. He begins speaking words of iniquity and deceit, and then veers off the path of wisdom and goodness (v. 3). He becomes a disciple of evil, devising mischief on his bed instead of sleeping (v. 4). The righteous meditate on the law of God both day and night (Ps. 1:2), and they use their tiem in bed to think about the goodness of God (Ps. 63:6). The wicked man, by contrast, does the evil he does on purpose. He sets himself in a way that is not good, and he does not detest evil (v. 4). This is the same kind of downward progress that we see in the first chapter of Romans.

How Good Is God?

David then describes God for us, and he does so with some powerful metaphors. The attributes of God that are mentioned here are mercy, faithfulness, righteousness, and justice. How are they described? God’s mercy is in the heavens (v. 5). How merciful is God to you? Well, how much sky is over your head? The same thing is said about His faithfulness to keep His promises recorded for us in Scripture. His faithfulness reaches up to the clouds (v. 5). His righteousness is like a vast mountain range, solid, immoveable, majestic, and serene (v. 6). And His justice is like the enormity of the ocean, the great deep (v. 6). In God, we live and move and have our being. Is God good to you? Picture yourself sailing out at sea. To starboard you can see a mountain range extending as far up the coast as you can make out. All you can see there is righteousness. To port is a vast expanse of thousands of miles, deeper than anything you can fashion an idea of — nothing but justice. Both of these together might terrify you, but over your head and in every direction, there is nothing but mercy and faithfulness, full of stars.

 

Fat Faith:

God’s mercy (lovingkindness) is mentioned again, the second bookend (v. 7). His mercy is excellent, and this is why we can take refuge in Him. We come under the shadow of His wings. When we take refuge in Him, we quickly discover that we are not in some divine bomb shelter. This is more like Rivendell than it like an indestructible bunker.

What is it like? What blessings do the godly receive? First, they are more than satisfied with the fatness of God’s house. The word for “abundantly satisfied” can be rendered as sated, or inebriated. And what are we satisfied with? God’s house is not a lo-fat kind of place. The fat is the Lord’s; it is offered to the Lord, and He returns it to us. “My souls shall be satisfied as with marrow and fatness; and my mouth shall praise thee with joyful lips” (Ps. 63:5). The era of the new covenant is a time of overwhelming blessing. “And in this mountain shall the Lord of hosts make unto all people a feast of fat things, a feast of wine on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well refined” (Is. 25:6).

Scripture presents to us a God who loves to be God with wild abandon. He overflows. He does not parcel out His blessings with tea spoons. God has a river, and it is a river of pleasures, a river of delights, and He makes us drink from it. The original here is referring to a river of Edens. At His right hand are pleasures forevermore (Ps. 16:11). In His presence is fullness of joy (Ps. 16:11).

With God is the fountain of life (v. 9). In His light we are enabled to see light (v. 9). It is almost impossible to think that St. John wrote what he did without having this passage in mind. “In him was life; and the life was the light of men” (John 1:4).

 

The Prayer:

O Lord, continue your mercy to those who know You (v. 10), and Your righteousness to those whose hearts are upright (v. 10). There is antipathy between the wicked (vv. 1-4) and those who are blessed in the way just described (vv. 5-9). The request made, the psalmist points with his finger across the battlefield—he sees bodies cast down, and they are not able to rise (v. 12).

 

But Here Is the Rub:

The psalm began with a description of the wicked who had no fear of God before his eyes. But what God does he not take into account? Why, this one, the one described here. And when we realize this, we should see that many who have been called “godly” are also men who have never taken this kind of God into account either. The true God is prodigal with His blessings. He wastes all kinds of stuff. He just throws it around. The true God does not stint. He invites us to come to heaven, which is an everlasting torrent of pleasures and delights. Why do we come into His presence cringing? Afraid that He is only interested in taking things away? What is it to believe this slander? I am afraid that it is the font of all wickedness.

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The Man Ain”t Got No Culture

Culture, like religion, is a name given from outside to activities which are not themselves interested in culture at all, and would be ruined the moment they were. I do not mean that we are never to talk of things from the outside. But when the things are of high value and very easily destroyed, we must talk with great care, and perhaps the less we talk the better. To be constantly engaged with the idea of culture, and (above all) of culture as something enviable, or meritorious, or something that confers prestige, seems to me to endanger those very ‘enjoyments’ for whose sake we chiefly value it. If we encourage others, or ourselves, to hear, see, or read great art on the ground that it is a cultured thing to do, we call into play precisely those elements in us which must be in abeyance before we can enjoy art at all” (C.S. Lewis, The World’s Last Night, pp. 33-34).

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Foundational Gratitude

“A biblical aesthetic requires that true creativity be built upon an inheritance. Perpetual revolution is as destructive to the arts as it is to civil order” (The Case for Classical Christian Education, p. 158).

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Dying Daily

“[T]he dependence of human culture on revenge and victimage is too fundamental not to survice the elimination of the most grossly physical forms of violence, the actual murder of the victim. If the Judeo-Christian ferment is not dead, it must be engaged in an obscure struggle against deeper and deeper layers of the essential complicity between violence and human culture. As the struggle reaches these deep layers, we lack the words to describe the issues; no concept can embrace the type of subversion that values and institutions must undergo” (Girard, A Theater of Envy, pp. 283-284).

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Lord”s Day Prayer 74

God of the Sabbath, we thank You for the rest You have bestowed on us in Jesus Christ our Lord. We thank You for calling us out of the darkness of sin and selfishness, and for calling us effectually into the triune fellowship of Your holy name. We thank You for this food, we thank You for the wine, and we thank You for one another. We ask that we would truly rest before You, and prepare our hearts for worship in the morning. We lift this request up to You in the kind name of Jesus, and amen.

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Take Generational Heed

Moses concludes his historical prologue, and introduces the law, and he does so with a very effective sermon on the nature of obedience. “Now therefore hearken, O Israel, unto the statutes and unto the judgments, which I teach you, for to do them, that ye may live, and go in and possess the land which the LORD God of your fathers giveth you” (Dt. 4:1-43).

Before the great sermon of Deuteronomy, Moses delivers this preliminary exhortation to the people. He first addresses the benefits of obedience. Israel is to listen to these words, because the law is their life (v. 1). Because it is their life, they are not to adulterate it (v. 2). They saw the results of previous adulteration at Baalpeor (v. 3; cf. Num. 25; Ps. 106:28-31; Hos. 9:10). But the obedient were spared (v. 4), and were being taught the law so they could apply it in the land (v. 5). This law was their visible wisdom (v. 6). Israel would be respected because of her covenant relationship with God (v. 7), and because of the righteousness of the law (v. 8).

Having set the tone, the central portion of this sermon concentrates on the snare of idolatry (vv. 9-31). They were to take generational heed; the people are told to take heed, and keep their souls diligently (v. 9). They are commanded to teach both children and grandchildren (v. 9). They are told particularly to recall the events at Horeb when God gathered them together—so that they might fear and teach (v. 10). Moses reminds the people what happened there at Horeb. The contrast was not between visible and invisible, but rather between audible and visible. There were great visual effects on the mountain (v. 11), but they saw no form of God—and for a good reason (v. 12). But this invisible God was not inaudible. The Ten Words were given — notice here that the Ten Commandments are equated with the entire covenant (v. 13). The Ten Words are therefore a summary of law. The law was given on two tablets of stone. God commanded Moses to teach “statutes and judgments,” to exposit the law, so that they would know what to do in the land (v. 14). The Puritan divines were therefore correct to assemble the teaching of all the laws in the Scriptures under the categories of these ten words.

Moses comes back to the problem of devolution. Again, they saw no form on the mountain (v. 15). If they forget this, they will corrupt themselves and “uncreate” the world. The order of prohibited idolatrous forms is exactly the reverse of the Genesis creation order (vv. 16-19). The nations were divided according to the heavenly bodies, but not for purposes of worship (v. 19). Those who bow down to tangible objects in prayer and devotion become more and more spiritually thick and dense.

The people had been given redemption. God had delivered them from fierce affliction to give them an inheritance (v. 20). Moses would not enter the land and they would. And if he was punished in this way, what would happen to them if they disobeyed in the good land (vv. 21-22)?

And then, again, they are told to take generational heed. The book of Deuteronomy is fundamentally about education, passing the knowledge of God from one generation to the next. Take heed, therefore, lest you fall into idolatry (v. 23). We serve a God who is a consuming fire, a jealous God (v. 24; cf. Heb. 12:28-29). The time of old age, security, and grandchildren is frequently the occasion of great lapses and apostasies (v. 25). Take heed.

God’s people are to take His covenant curses into account. If God is angered, heaven and earth will bear witness that Israel will perish from the land (v. 26). God will scatter them (v. 27), and they will serve stupid and impotent gods (v. 28). But God not only anticipates sin, He also anticipates whole-hearted repentance (v. 29). Tribulation concentrates the mind and heart (v. 30). When this happens, God will remember His sworn covenant (v. 31). This is a unique covenant. Has there ever been anything like this anywhere else (v. 32)? Did any nation ever hear God talk (v. 33)? Did God ever deliver a people like He did Israel from Eygpt (v. 34)? God showed Himself to Israel so they would know He is the only God (v. 35). He was kind enough to teach them from the fire (v. 36). He delivered them because He loved their fathers (v. 37), and promised to drive out greater nations than they were (v. 38). There is no other God (v. 39), and so if you want to prolong your days under His blessing, then listen to Him (v. 40). At the conclusion of this message, Moses established the cities of refuge for the Transjordan (vv. 41-43).

Take heed to yourselves. Moses is urgent when he speaks to the people of Israel in this way. He is urgent for a reason. Take heed to your God; we serve a God who cannot be contained in an icon or form. But He does speak. He does write. Take heed to the covenant; we are in relationship with God through covenant. This is where our faith is personal. Take heed to the law. Wisdom is resident on the pages of Scripture in front of you. Learn to see it there. And take heed to your children. Do not grow old and complacent, old and idolatrous. Do not destroy your grandchildren. Those who bow down to idols despise their children, as well as their children’s children.

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So Call Now

“Like biblical parables, commercial messages invade our consciousness, seep into our souls. Even if you are half-awake when commercials run, thirty thousand of them will begin to penetrate your indifference. In the end, it is hard not to believe.” (Neil Postman, How To Watch TV News, p. 124).

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